Leaders of the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust are asking Moore County commissioners to intervene on their behalf to break a deadlock with the Board of Education over differing appraisals of value of the current primary school property.
The land trust has made an offer to purchase the campus with hopes of converting it into a historical, cultural and educational center to serve the Black community and that will also benefit the entire county.
Last week, leaders of the land trust sought assurances from commissioners that they will not “penalize” the school board financially if it accepts something less than its appraised value for the current primary school.
The nonprofit land trust, led by West Southern Pines native and Pinecrest graduate Vincent Gordon and retired attorney Fenton Wilkinson, submitted an offer to purchase Southern Pines Primary. The trust’s $400,000 offer included $200,000 in cash, based on an appraisal the trust commissioned this past spring, a $54,000 credit for school groups that might visit the school in the future, and considerations for the community’s historical investment in the original Rosenwald school.
That falls short of the $630,000 appraisal done for the school board in late 2019 by Shaw Boykin, a professional real estate appraisal firm in Raleigh.
Gordon and Wilkinson appeared during the public comment period at the start of the commissioners’ July 21 meeting to make their case and also to argue that the school board’s original appraisal is flawed.
Wilkinson told commissioners that their $400,000 offer is halfway between the two appraised amounts.
“Unfortunately, the Board of Education’s position, which they have repeated over and over, the only option for the trust is take it or leave it at $630,000,” Wilkinson said. “Their reasoning is not because they believe $630,000 is valid, but what they have told us specifically is, rather, they are afraid if they accept anything less than $630,000, that you county commissioners will say that they left money on the table and will deduct the shortfall from your budget.”
No board member has stated fear of reprisal from the county commissioners in support of asking the land trust to pay the appraised value for the school. But when it resolved at the end of last year to pursue negotiations with the land trust, the board made a potential sale contingent upon the trust’s agreement to pay the $630,000 appraised price for the school.
Are There Expectations?
State law requires that public school boards obtain fair market value for surplus property. That value can be established either through an appraisal or through an open bidding process.
Moore County Schools has committed to using the proceeds from the sale of the Southern Pines and Aberdeen schools toward repairs and maintenance on its older campuses. Since the state doesn’t provide capital funding for schools, the county is the district’s sole source of money to build and repair school buildings.
“For a couple of years now we have had our commissioners tell us frequently that they have expectations for the funds from the sale of these properties to be made available for capital expense for the school board, so we’re honoring that expectation that’s been communicated to us,” Superintendent Bob Grimesey told the school board earlier this year.
Commissioners Chairman Frank Quis said Tuesday that commissioners have not discussed the matter, but that the notion that the county would financially penalize the school board did not come from his board.
“The Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust offer to purchase Southern Pines Primary is a decision for the Moore County Board of Education,” he said in referring to the process outlined under state law for the sale of surplus property. “The Moore County Board of Commissioners is not going to punish the Moore County Board of Education for the decision. I would note that the Board of Education is simultaneously negotiating with Moore Montessori School for the purchase of Southern Pines Elementary School. The Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust and the Moore Montessori School proposals offer our community many benefits.”
The school board is trying to sell both Southern Pines Primary on Carlisle Street and the elementary school on May Street, which will both be replaced by the new Southern Pines Elementary under construction in Morganton Park North. The new school is on track to open in January.
Moore Montessori board Chair Ben Greene and Head of School Katherine Rucker said in a June 15 letter that the charter school is open to buying Southern Pines Elementary for the appraised value of just over $1 million.
Earlier this month, the school board directed Grimesey and the board attorney to draft revisions to its existing resolution to allow Moore Montessori a chance to buy the school privately, and to identify any conditions that the schools should place on that process. The board could then consider those changes in August and authorize staff to engage the Montessori school in negotiations.
Last year, when the school board began planning to divest itself of four Southern Pines and Aberdeen schools, it granted the trust a private negotiation to purchase the primary school. The original June 1 deadline on those negotiations has passed, but after a request from Gordon the school board agreed to extend that deadline to Aug. 1.
The board granted that request, since it would not affect its timeline to pursue marketing the Southern Pines Primary property for a sale through the upset bid process.
“It does not change any details of our agreement with the West Southern Pines trust; it simply gives them an additional amount of time to pull their funding together,” board Chair Libby Carter said at the time.
Board members reiterated their commitment to getting $630,000 for the property if sold through a private arrangement.
“If they’re willing to pay the appraised value, then we could do something then,” said board member Ed Dennison. “The appraised value is the value of the property at the time it was appraised.”
The board still has the option to pursue selling the schools through open bidding if an agreement isn’t reached by Saturday. The land trust is requesting an extension of that deadline to Oct. 1.
On Tuesday, Carter said that the board is slated to consider that extension during its work session on Monday. She said that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the board isn’t likely to begin marketing the schools before December.
“We’re not in a rush,” said Carter. “Our agreement with the land trust was for the appraised value by the Board of Education, and at this time that is still our understanding with them.”
Under state law, the Board of Commissioners have the right of first refusal on surplus school property. The board passed on the four campuses in February. The state grants districts the right to sell property privately to historic preservation groups, and also makes allowances for charter schools.
Gordon, who retired from a military career that included working at the Pentagon during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, said the trust has put together a team to develop plans for the primary school campus. He told commissioners that the “support we have gotten up to this point … has been tremendous,” referring to businesses, churches, pastors and others who are helping raise the $200,000.
“We are at kind of a crossroad with the school board,” Gordon said of the differing appraisals. “We are continuing our efforts in hopes we can still purchase it. … We are not looking for a freebie. We are looking for what is fair, and that is all we are asking.”
Gordon said that, as someone who grew up in West Southern Pines, he wants to do all he can to help get the community “back up and running.”
The school campus, he said, “has pretty much been in deterioration for the past 30-40 years. I decided to throw my name in the hat and try to help my community a little bit. I am doing what I can to help raise economic development, to try to give them opportunity. I see a community that has been decimated over the past 40 years. … We want to make it into such a center. It will be attractive to everyone in Moore County and the state, not just be a part of West Southern Pines, but part of greater Southern Pines.”
Gordon said organizers envision having an incubator that would help local residents start their own business. The planned complex would include retail shops, and he added that Habitat for Humanity may be one of the tenants that would not only help low-income residents but do it through an innovative program with 15 homes in a way “that has never been done before.”
Also at “the top of the agenda,” Gordon said, is an African American museum for Moore County and a culinary arts program.
“We want to make a statement in the community,” Gordon said.
Wilkinson told commissioners that this multi-purpose center “will bring incredible benefits to West Southern Pines and also Southern Pines and all of Moore County.”
“We are creating a world-class destination, which will be complementary to the world-class golf and tourist destination that we already have,” he said. “These plans are not pipe dreams. We have assembled a world-class development team, partners and funding, which will bring millions of dollars of capital investment into the county.”
Wilkinson said the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development has indicated that this project “fits clearly” within its community facilities grant program with the possibility of receiving “$1 million plus.”
“All of these incredible opportunities for the county hinge on one thing — the trust has to first acquire the property,” he said. “This is where we have hit a brick wall. This is where we need your help.”
‘We Have Confidence’
Wilkinson and Gordon provided commissioners with documentation to support the land trust’s offer and also that lists “the most egregious errors” they have found in the appraisal done for the school board.
The land trust has taken issue with that appraisal of the property and estimates that the community’s contribution — $6,000 and 4 acres of land — toward establishing the campus and original Rosenwald school in 1920 equates to more than $120,000 in today’s value.
The original school was demolished in 1950 and over time replaced with the buildings that are still there today. West Southern Pines School later became the segregated West Southern Pines High.
The trust also contests the comparative value of Southern Pines Primary and Elementary as returned in the district’s appraisals, and the appraisal’s use of unsold schools’ listing prices and a church in a Richmond suburb as comparable values in determining a value for Southern Pines Primary.
“We have confidence in the appraisals done almost a year ago and have no reason to question the values that were set previously,” Carter said. “They were done by a reputable firm from Raleigh, and the comparisons, although it’s difficult to find schools that have been sold, are very legitimate comparative appraisals.”
The trust’s offer also factors in an estimated $24,000 that the district would spend selling the school through an upset bid process.
Wilkinson said they are not asking commissioners “to take any sort of position” on what is fair market value.
“We recognize that is not your decision to be made,” he said. “It is up to the school board to reach a determination. I ask you to read this and come to your own conclusion as to whether $630,000 is substantiated by the appraisal. We believe that you will agree with the trust and the many experts that we have consulted on this, that their appraisal does not substantiate this $630,000 value.”
Wilkinson said the trust is willing to negotiate with the school board.
“The trust offer is just that — it is an offer,” he said in conclusion. “It is not take-it-or-leave like the (school) board’s position. It is an offer, and it is subject to negotiation. We can negotiate a win-win solution for everyone in Moore County.”